Before he ever fired up his Capco Contractors Dragster at the starting line for the first round of Sunday’s Dodge Nationals, Steve Torrence made NHRA Top Fuel history at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In the fourth pairing of eliminations for the Dodge Finals, newly named NHRA Rookie of the Year Justin Ashley set low elapsed time of the meet to defeat Doug Kalitta, Torrence’s closest pursuer. Torrence became just the third NHRA Top Fuel racer to earn three straight championships. Joe Amato (1990-92) and Tony Schumacher (2004-09) did it before him.
Although Kalitta had a legitimate chance to unseat the reigning king of the class, Torrence’s three-peat was less of a surprise for many than his demeanor.
It was clear he had changed, this sometimes-brash, tough-talking Texan. Since he claimed his previous championship, he had married sweetheart Natalie Jahnke, found out just recently that they would be expecting a baby daughter sometime next spring, and simply had learned a thing or two just in the course of life.
“First and foremost,” Torrence told the Las Vegas crowd that was limited by the state to 10 percent of capacity, “I want to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, because I fall short a lot and everybody sees it. I get it. It ain’t something I’m proud of.”
He quickly said, however, that he is proud of his Capco Contractors Dragster team: “Richard Hogan, Bobby Lagana. Every one of those guys give heart and blood to be out here to do this. It’s unbelievable really, I mean three championships in three years and the success that we’ve had.” He said he and his father Billy, who finished third in the 2020 standings, are “a couple of hillbilly pipeliners from East Texas, and to be out here and do this is unreal. I can’t thank those guys at home enough that they work so hard and keep us out here. Can’t thank mom and dad for supporting me. My wife who supports me. I don’t get emotional much, not this way. But this is different. Everybody, thank you for the support. Thanks for everything.”
Part of that “everything” was being understanding and patient as he improved some of his habits.
He said he believes he’s a better champion this time around – “and it’s not my driving. It’s my outlook on everything else. I had a bad attitude in 2017 and we didn’t win the championship. Then 2018 was a storybook team. We’d go out and win everything. Last year we won it by a few points.
“You grow as a person. You can be mature in business and you can be mature in your everyday life, but competition brings out a different side of you and you have to be able to harness that and those emotions,” Torrence said.
“I’ve gotten a lot better handle on that than I’ve had in the past. I’ve dug myself a hole with a lot of people. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and I screwed that up with a lot of folks. But we try to do the best we can and just show that we’re here racing as a family. We do this for fun. This is a job, but it’s what we do as a family for fun with every one of these guys. So you just go out and you put your best foot forward and try to change people’s perceptions that you showed them a couple of times,” he said. “That’s what I really worked on for the last couple of seasons: not so much wearing my heart on my sleeve and trying to control my emotions better in a competition situation.”
He had plenty of competitive situations, even in this shortened season. And the drama came down to the final day of the 11-race schedule.
“Doug Kalitta is the fiercest competitor out here, and those guys have fought hard so many years, so long. And I mean, you want to kick yourself in the butt for robbing that guy out of it,” Torrence said of his closest challenger and the lone driver who stood in his way Sunday morning.
He said he had “a little bit of a mixed emotion” when he was sitting in the staging lanes, ready to make his first pass of the day, and realized Kalitta had lost to rookie Justin Ashley to nix any chance to earn his first title.
“I’m a Doug Kalitta fan. I was just [in his hauler lounge] looking at the run and I mean, that run that he made, the reaction time and the E.T. would have beat us. So yeah, I’m excited that we won our third championship. I was excited to get that win. With that being said, I know what it takes to get here, what it takes to be in this position and how hard every one of those guys over there work and how hard Doug works and the amount of time that he’s been out here and to come up short not just one time but so many times, it’s a mix of emotions for me,” Torrence said. “I know where his head’s at right now, and I know how it feels. I’m happy for my team and myself, but I was saddened for Doug and that whole Mac Tools team. They fought so hard and they had a great run.”
He still had to finish his race, and in thinking about that, he paid tribute to Kalitta: “Now we got to go finish our business. We don’t want to just get by on the skin of our teeth. That’d be an insult to Kalitta. So we’re going to do the best we can.”
The Torrences bypassed the first race of the season, so the repeat champion’s feat was even more remarkable.
He called it “extremely gratifying” and said, “I mean, we wouldn’t have skipped the race if we would have known every race would have counted. So it ended up biting us in the butt, really. It made it more difficult for us to be able to be where we’re at today. And who knows? It could have still been in the same situation. We could have gone there and not qualified.
The moment was sentimental for Torrence, because he and his dad and the entire team are concerned about the healing progress of crew member Dom Lagana, who, along with their friend and former Top Fuel racer Richie Crampton, were involved in a car accident in September at Indianapolis.
“It went for every one of these boys. These guys spend countless hours and days and weeks working on this race car, and then they give it to me with the hope that I’m going to go do my job. Indy after Dom’s accident was extremely difficult. I never found myself in an emotionally motivated situation where you’re trying to do it for your brother that’s fighting for his life and you want nothing more than to win that race for him,” Torrence said. “I’m the one that lost that race. I went up there and lost on a holeshot and I didn’t take it well. My mind wasn’t in the right place. No excuse, but that’s what we’re supposed to do as drivers is be [on] when everything is against you. These guys are time and time again, and they instill the confidence that the car is going to be there. But I just didn’t do my job that race.”
He said, “We were able to redirect our focus, and so much good news has come out of the camp with what’s going on with Dom. And you’re going to be emotional when you get down there and they tell you you’re a three-time world champion, and then they tell you that Dom just texted and said he loved you. It pulls at your heart a little bit. But nothing short of a miracle and the grace of the good Lord, Dom is recovering. Dom is going to be Dom. He’s going to be banged up and in bad shape, but he’s Dom and we got him and we’re going to do what we are going to do to get him back out here with us. Today is a roller coaster of emotions, and I said it here when they handed me that trophy, it would be an injustice to everyone at the Kalitta camp for us to go out here and not try everything we’ve got to win this race and finish this deal strong.”
He lost to close friend Antron Brown in the final round.
“But you know,” he said, “it’s just truly a blessing to be here. I’ve had a lot of highlights in my career and this is going to be right up there at the top with all of them. Thank you so much. Thanks, NHRA. Thanks, Camping World for coming on and making this possible so we can keep racing. We appreciate everybody and everything that goes in to make this happen.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) October 27, 2020